Do you forget things when you’re stressed?
Does it feel like your brain is blanking out?
Turns out there’s a good reason why this happens.
Science has begun to make new discoveries in regards to how stress affects your brain.
This article explores some of these findings while answering the question “can stress make your brain shut down?”.
Your Brain Under Stress
Stress is a chain of reactions which begin in the amygdala – your brain’s emotional distress center.
When you experience something stressful, your amygdala kicks into high gear and sends signals to the hypothalamus.
Hypothalamus then relays this signal to the rest of your body. This tells your body it’s time to fight or flee.
This ‘flight-or-fight’ reaction causes your adrenals to produce adrenaline. Adrenaline, in turn, increases your heart rate, slows down the metabolism, and constricts your blood vessels – preparing you to deal with the stressor.
Your blood sugar levels also shoot up to fill your muscles with glycogen for energy.
Can Stress Make Your Brain Shut Down?
However, flight-or-fight isn’t the only way your body responds to stress.
See, when you’re in a situation from which there’s no escape, the brain doesn’t have many options left. It can’t run away, nor can it fight.
Therefore, it resorts to the last option it has: to ‘shut down’.
In psychology, they often say the brain “goes blank” during extreme periods of stress. E.g. in a car crash or when someone attacks you and you can’t defend yourself. Even if you’re giving a stressful public speech, your mind can still react as if you were encountering a life-threatening situation.
But there’s another reason why stress can make the brain seemingly shut down.
Experts suggest that stress turns off regions of the brain that regulate your creativity, deep thinking, and planning. (4)
This allows your brain to sharpen other vital senses to help you survive.
This is why sometimes, when you try to remember the event later, it feels as if you completely blanked out.
- Key point: It’s true – stress can make your brain shut down in extreme cases. When there’s no escape from a highly stressful situation, the brain’s last resort is to go blank, which is an ancient mechanism that increased our chances of survival.
The “Cortisol Effect”
Brain going blank is just one part of the problem with stress.
Another issue arises when stress doesn’t go away.
During chronic stress, your body keeps producing cortisol but it has no way to get rid of it quickly.
As a result, cortisol builds up in your body and brain, causing health issues in the process.
Research suggests that chronic stress messes with your brain function in a number of ways:
- It disrupts your synapses – this leads to loss of desire to socialize, mood swings, and even depression in severe cases. (1)
- Kills brain cells – chronic stress doesn’t just destroy your neurons, it even reduces the size of your brain, especially the areas linked to learning and cognition. (2)
- Aggravates the amygdala – While stress can shrink your prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of your amygdala, the fear center. The larger your amygdala is, the more stressed you’ll be. This creates a vicious cycle which is hard to break. (3)
Experts believe that chronic cortisol creates a domino effect in your brain.
It hard-wires certain brain pathways in the amygdala and hippocampus to make you react to even the slightest stressors. Which makes your body stay in a constant flight-or-fight mode.
Does Stress Affect Short-Term Memory?
The answer to the question “does stress affect your short-term memory?” is yes, it does. (5)
Let’s explain why and how this happens…
See, there are three main steps in order for information to become a memory:
Encoding is when you first receive information. During this step, your brain prepares this information to become a memory. For example, someone telling you their house address.
Consolidation happens when your brain transfers information from the short-term memory (which acts as a buffer) to long-term memory. E.g. when you repeat the address multiple times in your head until it becomes consolidated.
Retrieval is a part of the process where you recall the information stored in your long-term memory. An example would be recalling the address the next day.
So how does stress affect these processes?
- Simply put, stress interferes with the ‘encoding’ part of the memory. It gets in the way of your brain trying to encode the information it has just received.
A good example would be someone giving you their home address.
You try to remember it until you can save it in your phone, but in the meantime, you get a call from friend David.
David may have just interrupted your encoding process.
Stress is much like David getting in the way before you can encode information. It impairs the memory storage process.
Stress Drains Your Mental Resources
When you’re under stress, your brain has to dedicate a lot of its resources. This often compromises your short-term memory and the ability to retain new information.
This also explains why you may completely forget your doctor’s appointment on Thursday.
You may have scheduled the appointment with him on the phone beforehand, but during the conversation, you were stressed out and your brain was focused on something else.
The information didn’t even make it to your memory in the first place. You may have heard it – but your brain didn’t encode it.
How to Reduce Stress and Optimize Your Brain
There are a number of ways to relieve stress naturally. And prevent your brain from going blank the next time a stressful situation arises.
Shall we have a look?
First on the list are long walks. Walking, in general, is a form of cardio that’s easy on your body, but at the same time, it promotes healthy blood flow and relaxation of the mind. As a result, your stress hormones such as cortisol decrease. (6)
That said, you can do virtually any type of exercise to alleviate stress. Be it sprints, gym workouts, or long-distance running. All of these exercises boost endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in your brain.
The body often has shallow and quick breaths when you’re stressed.
Research shows that taking deep and slows breaths acts as a stress relief. (7)
Tension decreases, stress hormones diminish, and most importantly, your brain doesn’t ‘shut down’ from being overwhelmed with stress.
Try taking a deep inhale for 4 seconds, pause for 2 seconds, then exhale for 6.
It’s important to keep the exhale longer than inhale because that’s what ultimately gives you that feeling of relaxation.
Meditation is another technique which can help you to alleviate tension. (8)
Concentration meditation includes focusing on a particular object (e.g. breath) for an extended period of time.
Every time your mind wanders away, you simply bring your focus back to the object of attention – breath in this case.
Studies show that meditation helps reduce anxiety, stress, depression, and it improves your overall health.
Nootropics For Stress
Nootropics are supplements that enhance your mental performance, mood, and memory.
These natural supplements work to inhibit cortisol and other stress hormones, along with boosting your serotonin, dopamine, and neuron signaling.
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“Can stress make your brain shut down?”
In this article, we’ve learned that yes, it can.
Often times, the mind goes into the ‘flight-or-fight’ mode where it signals your body that it’s either time to fight or flee.
- But when the brain doesn’t have a solution to the situation, it often goes blank.
Not only that, we’ve learned that stress can also impair other functions of our brain, such as short-term memory.
To prevent these issues, it’s critical to learn how to deal with stress.
- Some of the best ways to do reduce stress include taking long walks, meditating, doing deep breathing techniques, and taking natural nootropics that reduce stress.
By following some of these techniques, you can reduce the chance of your mind blanking out next time you’re under stress.
How stress tears us apart: Enzyme attacks synaptic molecule, leading to cognitive impairment. (source)
Stress Kills Brain Cells Off. (source)
How stress and depression can shrink the brain. (source)
Stress-Related Noradrenergic Activity Prompts Large-Scale Neural Network Reconfiguration. (source)
Stress Effects on Working Memory, Explicit Memory, and Implicit Memory for Neutral and Emotional Stimuli in Healthy Men. (source)
Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. (source)
The role of deep breathing on stress. (source)
Meditation: Process and Effects. (source)